Wednesday, 28 October 2009

PC to Thinclient - Case Study

We have been running a Citrix Presentation Server / Xen App interface for about 3 years. One of the main reasons for moving to a Citrix environment was cost. Three to four years prior to our Citrix conversion we had bought a load of computers and it had come time to replace these. So one of the main benefits that we could see for moving to Citrix was that we could convert the PC's to thin clients and continue to use them until they physically die. On this front I was charged with investigating the best way of converting PCs to ThinClients.

The main criteria were as follows:

1. Must be cost effective.
2. Easy to configure
3. Easy to deploy
4. Good user experience.

Some of the options I investigated were an Ubnutu install with Citrix Client software builtin, Knoppix with Citrix Client software built in, 2X software, a cutdown WinXP or Win98 install with Citrix Client builtin and Thinstation. Early on we realised that installing the Citrix Client onto various Operating Systems would get us up and running fairly quickly but would would add or keep some of the drawbacks of our current setup. For example if we reinstalled a cutdown WinXP version onto our PCs then we would have to continue to manage Updates and AV on the PCs. If we went for a linux based operating system then we would have to learn a new operating system, keep it up to date and firgure out how to configure the Citrix Client on linux. Any support or configuration on the Thin Client side would mean that we had less time to concentrate on configuring the citrix server. We are a small IT department so we required a low maintanence solution. So we narrowed it down to 2X ThinClientServer or Thinstation.

Information from 2X website

2X ThinClientServer makes the move to thin client computing easy by delivering a solution to convert existing PC’s to thin clients and centrally manage thin client devices from any vendor (HP, Neoware, Wyse, Maxspeed and more). User's connection & device hardware settings (RDP / ICA / NX, screen size, Applications that users have access to, Terminal Servers and VMware virtual desktops) can be controlled centrally by device, user, group or department (Active Directory / Local Accounts) via the web-based interface.

All in all 2X is a very comprehensive product and it would do everything we require. We downloaded a trial version and played with it for a week or so. We found that it was easy to administrate however we had great difficulties in deploying the software to most of our pc's, we tried various methods but it just didn't like our network.

So we were down to Thinstation. The only reason we had got found out about Thinstation was because a sales man had stated that we could use a linux boot cd to convert a normal pc into a thin client. We found Thinstation and began working with it. I had some experience of Linux so I looked into configuring Thinstation.

From Thinstation website

Thinstation is a basic and small, yet very powerful, Open Source "thin client" operating system supporting all major connectivity protocols: Citrix ICA, NoMachine NX, 2X ThinClient, Microsoft Windows terminal services (RDP, via RDesktop), VMWare View Open client, Cendio ThinLinc, Tarantella, X, telnet, tn5250, VMS terminal and SSH (No special configuration of the application servers is needed to use Thinstation).


Here is a list of pros and cons of Thinstation we have found while using it:
Pros
  • Minimal end user interaction required.
  • Free!!
  • Multiple deployment methods
  • Very small (~11mb)
Cons
  • Complicated configuration.
  • No central configuration
We use Thinstation as a boot disk on various different hardware from Intel Dell laptops to custom built AMD machines. We had to run a single configuration on all pc's as we were using a cd to boot so I had to enable most of the network and display modules in the config. (This is not recommended, read on to see why).

In our config the CD boots straight into Citrix Desktop so no user interaction is required and we setup the config to shutdown the PC 5 minutes after the user logs out. (I forgot I had left this option enabled as it didn't work in 32 bit Citrix however it started to work in 64 bit Citrix!).

Screen resolution was an issue because we couldn't modify resolution for individual users. There is a resolution menu that can be used to allow users to choose their preferred resolution however users have to choose on every boot up. This was not a good solution for us so we decided to create three different configurations for the three main display resolutions that users preferred.

The issues we have had with Thinstation are:
Thinstation not detecting the correct display resolution.
Network dropping occasionally.
Not being able to change configuration easily.
The first two points could be due to the large number of modules I had to use to accommodation our varied software although the network drop out has also happened on some HP thin clients that we use. Both issue have largely been resolved by using different graphics / network cards.

We are currently looking at setting up a Thinstation PXE server to allow PCs to boot directly from the network rather than having to boot a CD first. This should make it easier to change configuration.

Overall we have been very impressed Thinstation as it is free and seamless for the user.

Sorry for the long post but I hope it has been useful.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thinstation isn't *that* hard to administer centrally, but it takes a tftp server to do so. Here you a put a global config file (so you have to edit one file to change all client) and/or you can have a centrally placed config file for individual client. You can even group clients and have a group config file.

But, correct there isn't any fancy web based configurator, you have to edit text files.

Also consider to boot locally (CD or whatever) and pull the config file(s) only from the tftp server. Somewhat faster to boot this way on a busy network and still easy to administer.

Sony said...

@Anonymous

Thanks for your comment.

We are currently trying to figure out how to centrally manage out Thinstation configs.

We are trialing PXE boot with a TFTP server next week. I think that will be my next post.

As far as I know you can only configure clients by using MAC addresses. If this is the case then management would become quite hard for us.

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

can you post your config of the thinstation wht you have used on your environment. ?

kamalnv@gmail.com

Sony said...

I will dig out my thinstation config and post it here.

It will probably be a new post so keep checking back.